Bluegrass First Class celebrates big year in 2024

Southern Legacy at the 2024 Bluegrass First Class – photo © G. Nicholas Hancock

“This is the first year since COVID that we have sold out of tickets and rooms,” said Bluegrass First Class promoter, Milton Harkey, as he relayed the good news from the stage during Saturday night’s show at the Crowne Plaza Resort in Asheville, North Carolina.

Harkey fell ill and was unable to attend last year’s event. He expressed his gratitude to the audience for their support.

 “I just wanted to take a minute and tell you how happy I am to be back this year. Prayers do work! This time last year, I couldn’t get out of the bed, and now look at me! If you wonder what gives people inspiration in times when we’re sick, you folks inspire me…all year long. My inspiration comes from you and we’re so appreciative of that. There’s probably some debate on this, but I think I’m 90% back. I’m getting stronger all the time. Thank you for all your prayers.”

Once again, Bluegrass First Class featured an all-star line-up. This year’s slate included: Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, The Malpass Brothers, Rhonda Vincent, Authentic Unlimited, Appalachian Road Show, Seth Mulder & Midnight Run, and more that appeared on the main stage in the Expo Center. There was also a full slate of up and coming bands on the Showcase Stage in the main lobby, which we will feature tomorrow.

During their portion of the show, Authentic Unlimited presented new original material from their two forthcoming Billy Blue projects, set to release in March. In addition to their two newest singles, Big Wheels and Fall in Tennessee, the quintet treated the crowd to several sneak peeks of their new music.

Each day featured a band paying homage to the late J.D. Crowe and Tony Rice. Friday it was Rickey Wasson and the New South Tribute Band. Saturday was Southern Legacy, playing their first time for BFC. Josh Williams, Don Rigsby, Ron Block, Steve Thomas, and Mike Anglin comprised the hard-driving, high-energy band. They came together with an impressive collective resume. Two members (Rigsby and Thomas) toured with Crowe, Williams worked alongside Tony Rice, Block picked with Alison Krauss for over 30 years, and Anglin has played with the best including the Lonesome River Band.

Thomas and Rigsby took turns telling J.D. stories.

Thomas shared about the time he called Crowe (in 2008) to inform him that SPBGMA would be presenting him an award for Lefty’s Old Guitar.

“I said, ‘You got Album of the Year.’ JD asked, ‘Did I get anything on banjo?’ When I said, ‘I don’t think so,’ he said, ‘I’m watching the Super Bowl, you get up there and say something.'”

Rigsby noted Crowe also won the album award that same year at IBMA, but tied with the Infamous Stringdusters.

“He kind of fumed about that. He said, ‘You’d think just one more would have voted the right way.'”

Lefty’s Old Guitar was also nominated for a Grammy that year.

After being off the road for three years, Williams declared, “This is our maiden voyage at Bluegrass First Class. Somebody asked how did you guys get together? The only answer that I could give them was the Lord. The five of us has to have been Divine Grace. We all wanted to do something like this our entire lives.”

“This is my last rodeo,” Rigsby noted.

Williams stressed, “I love these guys. They are my heroes and my friends. Southern Legacy is here to stay.”

After a powerful afternoon set, Appalachian Road Show’s evening performance got started with some technical problems resulting from miscommunication, but they kept things flowing smoothly with their tunes and stories.

“Todd’s got bass issues, Darrell’s got voice issues, Zeb is young and doesn’t have issues, Jim’s had power issues….and I don’t have any fingers!”, ARS banjoist, Barry Abernathy blurted out in humorous mock desperation. His announcement was met with laughter, applause, and pure delight from the audience who loved their music

The 29th annual event included lots of special guests taking the stage. On Friday, Olivia Jo joined Rhonda Vincent to debut her first single on ATS Records, High Sierras.

On Saturday, during their first set, Don Rigsby invited his 16-year-old son, Andrew, to sing a couple of father/son tunes.

They also welcomed a young lady, Lilly Anne Svrlinga of Creekwater Collective, to come sing a song.

She was followed by two of Authentic Unlimited’s vocalists, Eli Johnston and John Meador, who joined Rigsby and Williams to sing Rigsby’s latest recording, Cold Ashes.

“This is our first time that we’ve done it on stage. We didn’t even rehearse,” Williams admitted. The quartet offered up a flawless rendition of the tune that Rigsby co-wrote with Billy Droze.

Also appearing was Nu-Blu, hosts of Bluegrass Ridge TV. While on site, they filmed exclusives for Bluegrass First Class and spotlight interviews with many of the bands at the annual indoor festival.

“Be sure and stay tuned in to Bluegrass Ridge to see your favorite artists,” said Nu-Blu’s Daniel Routh.

Each day rooms, hallways, and suites were filled with amateurs and professionals jamming until the wee hours of the morning. It was a weekend filled with great music, fellowship, and fun times.

As the event began to wind down, Harkey promised the packed auditorium, “We’re gonna load it up again for you next year.” Plans are already underway for Bluegrass First Class’s 30th year in 2025.

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.